Oscar telecast dates could help film fest

The Academy Awards are moving back to March in 2014.
More importantly to Palm Springs, the nominations for the 86th annual Academy Awards will be announced Jan. 16, 2014. That means the Palm Springs International Film Festival will again be a precursor to the Oscar nominations.
The Palm Springs International Film Festival will open Jan. 3 – the same date as this year – and run through Jan. 13. The nominations were announced this year on Jan. 4 – one day before its awards gala. Some wondered if that might diminish the impact of the gala since the festival ceremony wouldn’t have a direct impact on the voting. And what if some of its honorees were stinging from not getting a nod from the Academy voters?
But the gala attracted record crowds and elicited moving speeches.
The next Academy Awards will be March 2. But Palm Springs film festival organizers shouldn’t get too comfortable with the expanded lead time to the Oscars. The golden statues will be handed out Feb. 22 in 2015.
Next year’s ceremony is being moved to avoid overlap with the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will be held Feb. 7 to 23 in Sochi, Russia.
There’s been no announcement about when the nominations will be announced in 2015, but it will likely be around the launch of the 2015 film festival.
We’ll cross that bridge to the Oscars when we come to it.

Barry Manilow takes minds off Newtown


Barry Manilow’s decision to postpone his Friday “Gift of Love II” concert after the Newtown, Conn,, shootings caused some fans to miss his McCallum Theatre shows last week.

But, on the whole, it was a smart decision.

Marilyn Benachowski, concert mistress of Desert Symphony, said her daughter couldn’t stay in town through Barry’s rescheduled show on Sunday afternoon. So she brought her son, who was thrilled by the concert.

Barry told me after the makeup concert on Sunday he just couldn’t do his special Christmas show after news of the 26 kids being massacred saturated the air waves all week. The program included the feel-good “Because It’s Christmas (For All the Children)” with the Cathedral City High School and Washington Charter School choirs joining him on stage. That would have been too tough.

He said he considered singing “I Am Your Child,” which he often performs in concert, for his Saturday night show after taking off Thursday and Friday nights. The lyrics say, “I am your chance/ Whatever will come, will come from me/ Tomorrow is won by winning me/ Whatever I am, you taught me to be.”

But Barry said he sensed when he got on stage Saturday night that the audience didn’t want a song that might remind them of the massacre. He decided on the spot that he would go on with his regular “Gift of Love” program and not sing “I Am Your Child.”

Fans I talked to who had been to all four of his benefit concerts until then said the tragedy back East didn’t really affect their enjoyment of the shows. One fan said the shootings made Barry’s affection for the children on stage seem a little more poignant. But there was no mention of the tragedy and the fans said that’s what they wanted.

One of the joys of hanging out at the McCallum after two “Gift of Love” shows was talking to Fanilows from around the world. I took photos of about 15 of them Tuesday night. They were from as far away as Japan, Germany and Australia. I talked to two women from Australia Sunday afternoon about a mass shooting in their country that devastated them 10 years ago.

Mostly, they just talked about how much they loved the shows and the Coachella Valley. Alan Silberlight, who had seen Manilow more than 400 times, said watching Barry perform his hits and Christmas songs in the intimate McCallum Theatre made for one of his best Manilow experiences ever.

Barry ended his show crooning “Count Your Blessings,” another song that couldn’t help but make a parent feel lucky that Newtown didn’t happen in our town.

“I think about a nursery and I picture curly heads,” Barry sang, “and one by one I count them as they slumber in their beds.”

There were reminders of Newtown if you wanted to hear them. But Barry kept the spirits positive, which is how most people wanted to celebrate the Christmas season.

Solid round of cheers for ‘Book of Mormon’

“The Book of Mormon,” which opened Wednesday at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, is boisterous, bold and endearingly blasphemous.
It’s crude, in a contemporary way, and ironic in an “I love L.A.” sort of way, which is why SoCal audiences will love this spoof as much as New Yorkers praised it for its adherence to the Broadway musical form.
The 2011 Tony Award-winning musical drew a hip Hollywood audience, including Kevin Smith, John C. Reilly and even the Webster’s definition of crude, Bob Saget.
That’s a tough crowd to crack. But most of the audience cheered as if they were at a Dodgers game. They gave the show’s creators – Robert Lopez, Trey Parker and Matt Stone of “South Park” fame – a curtain call worthy of Prodigal sons.
“The Book of Mormon,” about two wide-eyed Mormons on a mission to Uganda, is a taut ensemble production starring Jared Gertner and Gavin Creel.
Getner, who started as an understudy in the original the Broadway production and eventually took over the sidekick role of Elder Arnold Cunningham, is a little bit Jonah Hill and a little bit Mel Brooks as a self-deprecating young nebbish who prides himself on being a follower.
Creel, who earned a couple Tony nominations for his work in “Hair” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” is Arnold’s companion, Elder Price, the very model Morman missionary who figured God would reward him for his awesomeness by sending him to Orlando for his two-year mission.
They’re both in for a harsh dose of reality. The villagers they’re sent to baptize are being terrorized by a warlord named Butt (Bleeping) Naked. Most of them have AIDS and the doctor complains he has maggots in his scrotum.
None of the other Mormon missionaries proselytizing in the village have managed to baptize one person. They cope, they explain in a hilarious old school Broadway production number, by simply turning reality on and off like a light switch.
Of the two newcomers, Elder Cunningham is the best prepared for the ordeal because he has an active imagination. Since he hasn’t actually read the Book of Mormon, he just makes things up to pacify the natives at every conflict. That leads the natives to eventually produce their own musical based on the Book of Mormon as told by Arnold, which has very little to do with the real book of Mormon, but is a whole lot of fun.
If this doesn’t sound like a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, well, it’s not. But the form is very true to the format R&H, Frank Loesser and Meredith Willson pioneered after World War II. In fact, Parker and Stone studied old Broadway production numbers on YouTube to be able to convey the ideas they wanted to get across in a musical comedy format. “Spooky Mormon Hell” looks like they were also viewing some old madcap Mel Brooks movie numbers.
The production is filled with gags that generate belly laughs, but, instead of going for laughs first, the show is built around the songs. “The Book of Mormon” started as a soundtrack and all the songs advance the plot and serve to emphasize important points in the narrative. The first act peaks with the typically big production number, which creates an arc going into the intermission. The show resolves itself with a message as it builds momentum heading into the big finish.
That message is, it’s not the literal translation that’s important, it’s the values that the story imparts. That’s why Mormons don’t object to this show. Parker, Stone and Lopez don’t make fun of the Mormons for having a polygamy past. They make fun of them for being really nice guys who just want to believe in something good. And the truly good Mormons in this show, like the truly good people in any religion, really want to do good.
“The Book of Mormon” is the hottest ticket in L.A. right now. They go for up to $175, but you can arrive early and enter a lottery for $25 ticket. The show runs through Nov. 25 and they say your best chance for optimum seats are midweek in October or November.
Information: www.BookofMormonTheMusical.com

Liberace shoot evokes memories of old Palm Springs

Palm Desert-based producer Jerry Weintraub isn’t allowing me on the local sets of his highly-anticipated Liberace movie, “Behind the Candelabra,” this week.
But just the media trucks parked all around the shooting locations yesterday and today have reminded me of the vigil held for Liberace as he was dying at his opulent home on the corner of Alejo and Belardo roads in 1987.
That was one of the sickest things I’ve ever seen. The media — including The Desert Sun — stood outside of Liberace’s house 24/7 waiting for any announcements about his condition.
Would he admit he had AIDS? How much longer did he have to live?
This film, based on the grand pianist’s final years, ought to be a great HBO presentation.
Michael Douglas, who spent part of his childhood at his father, Kirk Douglas’ Palm Springs home near the shooting locations, portrays the flamboyant pianist, who actually owned four homes in the Las Palmas area.
Matt Damon plays Liberace’s lover, Scott Thorson. We hear Damon has waxed his chest for the role and Douglas is getting some amazing hair and wardrobe.
In an unusual bit of casting, Dan Aykroyd is playing Liberace’s manager, Seymour Heller, who lived on Frank Sinatra Drive in Rancho Mirage. I only interviewed Heller once over the telephone, but I can’t picture the former “Saturday Night Live” star playing the man who was one of the smartest handlers in show biz history.
I never did interview Liberace, but I met him walking on Palm Canyon Drive before I moved to Palm Springs. I’ll never forget he had on Lee’s jeans when everyone else was wearing Levis and he had a huge belt buckle.
I’ve heard Weintraub’s crew is not shooting the interiors of any of Liberace’s houses. They were scheduled to shoot the interiors at Lori Sarner’s Panorama Drive home in Little Tuscany.
Sarner, who is president of the Pegasus Riding Academy for the Handicapped, bought the house from the late George Randolph Hearst, who decorated it so audaciously it was known as Little Hearst’s Castle.
From what I’ve heard, the exteriors are being shot at the Our Lady of Solitude Church across from Liberace’s West Alejo home and throughout his Vista Las Palmas/Old Las Palmas neighborhoods. Another shoot was scheduled to take place today outside of City Hall.
Liberace was known for his fabulous Halloween parties at his West Alejo house and also for giving out the best bags of candies to trick or treaters in all of Las Palmas.
But Liberace’s wasn’t all glitz and glamour at his Palm Springs home. He also sold a dune buggy to his friend, Elvis Presley.
That is a sight I would have loved to have seen. I can just imagine Elvis and Liberace jumping sand dunes out around Whitewater with their well coifed hair flying in the wind.

Remembering Jim Thorpe on centennial of a legendary Olympics feat

I’m surprised there haven’t been more references to the 100th anniversary of Jim Thorpe’s legendary decathlon win in the Stockholm Olympics.

Thorpe, who was raised as a Sac and Fox Indian in Oklahoma, had several connections to our local Cahuilla Indians. He became a roommate on baseball’s New York Giants with the man widely considered the greatest Cahuilla athlete of all time, “Chief” John Meyers, who was Chisty Mathewson’s catcher from 1910 through 1915.

The year Thorpe won the Olympics decathlon and pentathlon gold medals — and was declared the world’s greatest athlete by the king of Sweden — Meyers batted .358 for the pennant-winning Giants.

The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum archives includes an interview with Meyers conducted in 1966 in which he recalled Thorpe’s continued grief over the fact that the International Olympic Committee stripped him of his medals after discovering Thorpe had played a summer of bush league professional baseball in those days when athletes were required to be amateur athletes in every sense of the word.

“Thorpe was a proud man,” Meyers said. “Not conceited, he was never that. But proud. I remember very late one night Jim came in and woke me up. I remember it like it was only last night. He was crying and tears were rolling down his cheeks. ‘You know, Chief,’ he said, ‘the King of Sweden gave me those trophies. He gave them to me. But they took them away from me… They’re mine, Chief, I won them fair and square.’ It broke his heart and he never really recovered.”

Thorpe was a chronic alcoholic by the early 1950s. He was hospitalized for lip cancer in 1950 as a charity case. In died in 1953 at the age of 64.

But, in an ABC Sports poll of sports fans, Thorpe was voted the greatest athlete of the 20th century over the likes of Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth, Jesse Owens, Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan.

Among Nancy Cain’s favorite videos Pat Boone speaking in tongues:

Nancy Cain and her teams of videographers have chronicled much of the late 20th century American history.

The Desert Hot Springs resident listed her top 10 favorite videos she has shot, edited or produced for TV in descending order, but my favorite of her top 10 is actually No. 10: a remarkable video of singer Pat Boone speaking in tongues with his minister, Reverend Bredesen, in 1988. It’s made all the more amazing by the ease with which they enter into this other worldly language. You can watch that video here:

And here is the rest of Nancy’s list of her top 10 videos:

9. Anything with Richard Nixon in it over the years

8. Digging around in the Los Angeles County Dump 1991

7. Any of the reels and reels of inside workings of political campaign coverage starting with Nixon, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Pat Robertson, Bill Clinton, Ross Perot

6. Quiet time with Muhammad Ali (as he signed serigraphs of himself to be sold in galleries) 1993

5.Fred Hampton explains about the Black Panther Party. Chicago 1969

4.Anything on Lanesville TV (America’s Smallest TV Station) 1971-78

3.Buzzy Linhart sings “That’s the Bag I’m In” at the Videofreex loft on Rivington Street in NY 1969

2.Rita ironing her panties. Venice 1984

And No. 1: Whatever is happening live and streaming at this moment at such places as livestream.com/globalrevolution

For more about Nancy and her husband, “investigative satirist” Paul Krassner, read my column: Writer passes around favorite ‘Pot Stories’

Festival season continues

Between interviews this morning to advance the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival (May 10-13) and the Palm Springs International ShortFest (June 19-25), I tweeted that I had just concluded coverage of three major festivals and had four more in the next two weekends to go.
But I was wrong.
I was referring to this weekend’s Desert Lexus Jazz and Blues Fest at the Palm Springs Riviera Resort, the Brew at the Zoo beer and blues festival at The Living Desert, and the Weekend With the King celebration of Elvis Presley’s 45th wedding anniversary at the Elvis Honeymoon House and Annenberg Theater, followed by the film noir festival at the Camelot Theaters the next weekend.
But I just got a notice about another event happening Sunday at the Annenberg Theater that is an extension of a music festival
The Steinway Society of Riverside County is presenting the winners of its 2012 Festival Piano Competition in a free recital at 2 p.m. at the intimate theater in the Palm Springs Art Museum.
Twelve young pianists, from elementary to high school ages, will show off the prodigious skills that earned them awards in the senior and junior divisions.
The lineup includes senior division winners Julian Jenson, Dong Kim, Benjamin Kleinerman, Jonathan Mamora and Esther Yaghoubian, plus honorable mention winner D’laney Jevas. The junior division winners in the recital will be Jason Chan, Ranen Unger Hicks, Milaena Martinez, Vevina-Anne Swanson and Andrew Tang, plus honorable mention winner Joel Oswan.
But this isn’t the end of the festival season.
The weekend after that, there’s the Joshua Tree Music Festival (May 18-20 at the Joshua Tree Lake Campground) and the Palm Springs Smooth Jazz Festival XVII (May 19 at the Indian Canyons Golf Resort).

This weekend, I’ll be at the Weekend With the King, interviewing Elvis pal Jerry Schilling, who accompanied Elvis to meet President Nixon at the White House and went on to have a career as a film editor and a manager for the Beach Boys. I’ll do a public Q&A with him from 4 to 5 p.m. at the Annenberg Theater — just before the concerts paying tribute to Buddy Holly and Elvis
After the Joshua Tree Music Festival, I’m taking a vacation, for which I have nothing planned.

Paul Krassner turns 80

Paul Krassner, a prime mover behind the generation that didn’t trust anyone over 30, turns 80 today.
This Desert Hot Springs-based “investigative satirist” has outlived most of his contemporaries from the 1960s counter culture. Of the co-founders of the Yippies, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin; and the most famous Merry Pranksters, Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady, only Paul remains standing, although he does walk with a limp.
Like his friend, Allen Ginsburg, Paul transcended the underground movements of the 1950s and ’60s, blurring the line between generational distinctions. He was close friends with Lenny Bruce and Timothy Leary. In fact, he turned Groucho Marx onto LSD. So the Marx brother who refused to join any club that would have him as a member was initiated into the world of mind expansion by our local member of the Stoners Hall of Fame.
It never ceases to amaze me how many important counter cultural figures have been part of Paul’s daily life. I was recently having a conversation with Groucho’s nephew, Bill Marx, about dogma, and he quipped, “My karma can run over your dogma.”
I passed that line onto Paul and he told me he put it on a button and gave it to Ram Dass more than 20 years ago.
Paul’s most famous quote came at the height of the cold war when he wrote, “F**k communism.” No one could criticize him for being obscene because because he was being patriotic.
I think the secret to Paul’s longevity is he doesn’t drink or take any drugs that are not illegal. He’ll smoke marijuana or ingest LSD, but he won’t take an aspirin.
I told him he’s a testament to the benefits of better living through non-patented chemistry.
Of course, his greatest tool against old age is his sense of humor.
He’s needed it for all of the abuse he’s endured in standing up for things we take for granted today. The reason he walks with a limp is because he was beaten by the San Francisco police during the protests of the light sentence for Harvey Milk’s murderer, ex-cop Dan White.
Paul’s a great American and if the American dream was half as real as a pipe dream, he’d be rich man.
But Paul’s rich in many ways the Koch brothers could never understand.
Happy birthday, Paul.

Documentary fest heads into finale with a hit

Maybe I just got lucky, but my first impression of the American Documentary Film Festival Tuesday, after missing the first five days due to out-of-town business, is bordering on euphoria.
I can’t recall a better world premiere in my 23 years of covering film festivals in the Coachella Valley than the festival’s presentation of “I Stand Corrected” by Andrea Meyerson.”
The film is inspiring and likely to make a jazz star (if that’s not an oxymoron) out of transgender bass player Jennifer Leitham, whose remarkable life is the subject of this documentary.
What makes the film so special is that it’s not just a chronicle of an individual’s preparation for and reaction to a sex change operation. This is the story of a woman who discovered during puberty that some wires had crossed in her brain. She had always felt like a girl, but now, to her horror, she was seeing herself become a man. To cope, she immersed herself in her music and, as John Leitham, became a great jazz player, winning a Grammy as part of Mel Torme’s band and earning a position with Doc Severinsen, leader of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” Orchestra.
Leitham, 58, came out, so to speak, while touring with Severinsen. She was fully realizing her feminine nature at home with a wife who wanted to keep their private life private. But Leitham decided a Halloween gig would be the perfect opportunity to make a public appearance in women’s clothing. Severinsen said this wasn’t a costume party, but Leitham put on a dress any way and told Severinsen who she really was.
To Severinsen’s credit, he told Leitham he hired her as a bass player, not as a man or a woman. Then he told the rest of the band to address her as Jennifer Leitham and make no jokes at her expense.
Jazz is a macho world, with few female jazz musicians, let alone transgender players, so Severinsen’s support gave Leitham the confidence to proceed with her surgery, properly known as sex reassignment surgery.
Her career and private life suffered as a result. Her wife divorced her, leaving her broke, and few major festivals would book her after leaving Severinsen’s band. She also lost strength without her testosterone. But she gained sensitivity in her fingers and channeled her experiences into songwriting. She grew musically into an arranger who could lead her own band. Suddenly, she had the confidence to use her singing voice, which was always uncommonly high, making her a multi-faceted jazz star.
So, this film isn’t just about a transgender’s ordeal, it’s about the transformation of a beleaguered individual into an amazing musician and a confident stage performer. Meyerson uses engaging archival performance footage and Leitham’s great new, original material to reveal Leitham’s talent in full bloom.
Festival director Teddy Grouya also used his pedestal at the Camelot Theatres to present Leitham in full glory.
The post-film Q&A elicited a response from a TV producer who said she wanted to talk to Meyerson about buying her film. A representative of the Vancouver Biennale, who called “I Stand Corrected” the best film he’d seen at the festival, said he’d like to present Leitham at the Biennale, means Leitham could break a barrier by playing the Vancouver International Jazz Festival.
That kind of thing rarely happens at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. People get jobs out of ShortFest, but debut feature films rarely get TV deals at any local festival.
For dessert, Grouya had Leitham perform with just her stand-up bass to show how sensitive her fingers are. She performs richly textured melodies on her instrument and shows great stage charisma.
This film will launch Leitham into a new level of personal and professional respect and this festival will give “I Stand Corrected” a great boost onto the straight and LGBT film festival circuit.
That’s what makes the American Documentary Film Festival so valuable. Meyerson said she didn’t want to premiere her film at an LGBT festival because she didn’t want it to be labeled a transgender film. By presenting it at a documentary film festival, we see that it’s a great character study of a fine standup bass player who had been a troubled husband and daughter.
“I Stand Corrected” is a great name for the film and the film realizes the title’s potential.
The American Documentary Film Festival runs through 7 p.m. Thursday when the festival and Film Fund Award winners are announced. Ticket information: (760) 325-6565 or (760) 322-3689.

A few Oscar predictions

My top 10 picks for the Oscars:

Best Picture
Will win: “The Artist.”
Should win: “Hugo.” It’s Martin’s Scorsese’s best directorial effort and it magically captured the joy of the filmmaking experience I felt as a college film student.

Best actor
Will win: George Clooney for “The Descendents”
Should win: Gary Oldman for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” Even Clooney was wowed by Oldman’s acting skills after seeing his reel at the Palm Springs International Film Festival gala. I loved Damion Bechir in “A Better Life,” but Oldman deserves the Oscar for his subtle, understated performance

Best Actress
Will win: Viola Davis for “The Help”
Should win: Michelle Williams for “My Week With Marilyn.” Williams, Meryl Streep and Glenn Close all deserve this more than Davis, who was good, but not transformational. But Davis has been working the hardest on the Oscar campaign trail.

Best Director
Will win: Michel Hazanavicius for “The Artist”
Should win: Scorsese for “Hugo,” for the reasons mentioned above.

Supporting Actor
Will win: Christopher Plummer for “Beginners”
Should win: Christopher Plummer. It’s about time one of the greatest actors of our time won an Oscar

Supporting Actress
Will win: Octavia Spencer for “The Help”
Should win: Octavia Spencer. She stole the thunder from a great ensemble cast

Foreign Language Film
Will win: “A Separation”
Should win: “A Separation.” The dialogue and the way it’s executed put this head and shoulders above the competition

Documentary Feature
Will win: “Pina”
Should win: “Pina.” William Wenders is a great director and the enthusiasm this film generated at the Palm Springs International Film Festival makes me believe he’ll be rewarded with a gold statue

Adapted Screenplay
Will win: “The Descendents,” Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Should win: “The Descendents.” This is one of the few Oscar-nominated films that really has something to say, and it says it while entertaining with drama and humor

Original Screenplay
Will win: Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris”
Should win: “Midnight in Paris.” This film transports viewers, as well as Owen Wilson, to another dimension of enjoyment